Think of the last time you screwed something up. If you’re like many people, your inner critic scolded, You’re stupid, you’re a loser, you don’t deserve your job/friend/spouse/house. Then you probably bemoaned your lack of self-esteem and vowed to work harder to build it up—only to feel emotionally flattened again the next time you fell short.
That’s because there is a problem with our repeated attempts to promote emotional health by inflating self-esteem, according to Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin. “Our ultra-competitive culture tells us that we need to be constantly above average to feel good about ourselves—but there is always someone more successful, intelligent or attractive than we are. So we may wind up putting other people down in order to feel superior in comparison, which prevents us from seeing ourselves clearly and holds us back from reaching our full potential. And when we can’t fool ourselves into believing that we’re the best, we lose faith in ourselves and feel hopeless.”
There is a better approach. Instead of trying to bolster self-esteem, Dr. Neff suggested building self-compassion—by learning to accept yourself with an open heart and treat yourself with the same kindness you would show to a friend. Benefits: Studies link higher levels of self-compassion with greater life satisfaction, optimism, emotional intelligence and social connectedness…and less depression, anxiety and fear of failure.
Self-compassion is not self-pity. “Instead of emphasizing ‘poor me,’ the self-compassionate person recognizes that life is difficult for everyone,” Dr. Neff explained. Nor is self-compassion an excuse for not even trying to do well. “Self-compassion motivates you to push through difficult challenges and to learn from your mistakes—without being devastated by them,” she said.
PRACTICING THE ART OF SELF-COMPASSION
As with most things, self-compassion is a skill that improves with practice. In her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Dr. Neff describes various exercises for learning to speak to yourself in a gentle and supportive manner. Try the following techniques—at first you may feel silly, but soon you will see the benefits…
Three-chair dialog. Do this exercise whenever you are struggling with harsh self-judgment for a particular mistake or perceived character flaw. Place three empty chairs in a triangular configuration, several feet apart. Designate one chair for your inner self-critic…the second chair for the part of you that feels judged and criticized…and the third chair for a wise, compassionate observer. Now focus on the particular issue for which you are berating yourself.
- Sit in the first chair and express out loud what your self-critic is thinking—for instance, I hate it when you forget to pay the bills…you’re so irresponsible. Notice how that part of you is feeling—exasperated, self-righteous, worried.
- Move to the second chair and express the thoughts of the criticized part of you—perhaps, I feel hurt and overwhelmed, I’m too stressed to keep up with everything. Notice what your body (slumped, frowning) and tone of voice (childlike, discouraged) seem to convey.
- Continue the dialog between your self-critic and criticized self, physically moving from the first to the second chair and back again. Allow each part of yourself to express its views and be heard.
- When you’ve exhausted the conversation, move to the third chair. In the role of observer, comment as wisely and compassionately as you can, as if offering insights to friends. You might say to the self-critic, I see that you are worried and want to help prevent mistakes… and to your criticized self, It hurts to be judged harshly when you struggle with so many responsibilities and just want to be accepted for who you are.
- Review what you’ve learned from fully inhabiting both sides of yourself. Does your inner critic sound like your mother? Is “forgetting” to pay bills a form of rebellion? Keeping those insights in mind can help you remember to relate to yourself more kindly in the future.
Compassionate body scan. This technique is particularly helpful when you are holding a lot of stress, physical discomfort or emotional pain in your body, Dr. Neff said. The point is to systematically focus attention on each area of your body, one part at a time, offering yourself compassion related to the problem in that area.
- Lie on your back, arms at your sides, legs straight, feet shoulder-width apart and muscles relaxed. Starting at the top of your head, notice how your scalp feels. Is it itchy, tingling, hot? If there is discomfort, extend loving concern to that area by silently saying something like, Poor darling, it will be OK, just relax.
- Move your focus to your face, then neck, then shoulders, etc., down to the soles of your feet, expressing compassion wherever you encounter aches or tension. This takes five to 30 minutes, depending on how you are feeling. For Dr. Neff’s guided body scan, visit www.Self-Compassion.org and click on “Guided Self-Compassion Meditations.”
Self-hug. This can be done anytime you feel self-critical or upset. During particularly stressful periods, do it several times daily for at least a week.
Wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself a warm hug…gently rock your body…stroke your arms or face or put both hands gently over your heart…and focus on conveying self-love and tenderness.
In public, you can fold your arms and squeeze yourself gently or even just imagine hugging yourself comfortingly.
Why it works: Physical touch triggers release of oxytocin (called the hormone of love and bonding), calms cardiovascular stress and promotes a sense of security, Dr. Neff explained. That’s why this simple technique is such a powerful way to build and express self-compassion.